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Third Sunday of Advent: “What Then Should We Do?”
I was at my mother-in-law’s house in Texas on Friday when I learned about the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I could not bear to hear the details. As my family gathered around to listen to CNN, I retreated to her bedroom to look at all the photographs covering the walls and tabletops. Images of several generations who were fortunate enough to grow from babies to elders. Pictures of their recitals and formal dances; graduations, weddings, and reunions. I could not face the killing of children.
But our faith path is not to hide from suffering, but to turn toward it, to do what we can to redeem it with compassion and meaning. So I’ve set aside what I planned to say this morning to stand with you in this terribly sad moment.
There are times in our nation when I believe we all suddenly turn to look in the same direction, despite the many distractions and differences in our lives. 9/11. Katrina. Overwhelming tragedies that pierce our awareness and hold our attention for a long time. That make us grieve as a nation and that make us ask hard questions. About our country. About human nature. About God.
This is such a time. Because the massacre of twenty innocent children in their classrooms, the shooting of six adults committed to their care, the murder of a mother, is beyond understanding. We have had nineteen mass shootings in our nation over the last five years. Some killings targeted with hate; but most, lethal, random acts of fury. In every region of our country. In places where we go for leisure, like a shopping mall or a movie theater. In places we go with high purpose, like a college campus or a temple.
And now, without any conceivable motive, in an elementary school: what should be a sanctuary for our youngest and most vulnerable. Where we gather them to develop their creativity and teach them citizenship. Where we promise safety.
This horror shocks us and calls our nation into community: in conversations at home and work, in candlelight vigils, in special church services, in spontaneous memorials and protests. “Evil has visited our community,” the governor of Connecticut says. “Our hearts are broken,” our president says. And, in the face of this collective sadness, we ask each other, “What then should we do?”—much like the crowds surrounding John the Baptist in our Gospel this morning.
In the poetic lyrics of our closing hymn: “Signs of endings all around us,/Darkness, death, and winter days/Shroud our lives in fear and sadness,/Numbing mouths that long to praise./Come, O Christ, and dwell among us!/Hear our cries, come set us free./Give us hope and faith and gladness./Show us what there yet can be.”
Because we, as a people of faith, not only long for hope. We are called to create hope in this troubled world. We as followers of Christ allow our hearts to be broken open, not just to grieve—but to love more fully and heal more deeply. And to see what there yet can be.
Seeing what there yet can be. This is the baptism of awakening that I believe John the Baptist offered, with a loud roar and with cold water. Wake up to the hard times to come, he says, and change now, with a willing heart. So that you will be prepared for pain; so that you will not stand alone in your darkest days; so that you will be part of a new community of faith. John’s voice crying out of the wilderness is the right one for us today. Good news that with the intention to heal ourselves and this world, we can make it through these awful tears, become a stronger community, and, over the long arc of history, redeem loss with meaning.
The prophets Zephaniah and Isaiah join in to encourage us this morning. They give us a vision of a day of hope when God himself will sing over us: bringing us home, rejoicing over us in love, renewing us with gladness.
But it’s clear from John that we have work to do in this world before this day comes. He tells us the point of our spiritual journey is not to be afraid that the Day of the Lord is near—but to make it happen. In fact, we are charged to be God’s agents of redemption through a more powerful second baptism: of Holy Spirit and fire. A force greater than water, greater than good intentions. A fire from within, that can sustain us in darkness: keeping us hopeful, keeping us working for change.
When told Eric yesterday that I had rewritten my homily, he told me he had thrown his out, too, in order to speak to our heartbreak. So I share his insights also, since he’s been our wise teacher about hope and apocalyptic visions this Advent season. He says: “It's in the darkest times that we can finally ‘get’ apocalyptic literature. When it seems like everything is blocking the Kingdom of God from coming in its fullness, when everything is conspiring together to hold us back, blocking our road like a massive tree, John tells us to keep the faith, not to give up trying, for even now 'the axe is lying at the root of the tree.’ We need to pick that axe up by picking ourselves back up and reaching out a hand to others who need help getting back up, as well.”
What then should we do, as people of faith, when we face a tragedy like this one? I humbly say I am searching for answers; yet I am willing to do this along with you as best I can, so that we may minister to each other, through the Holy Spirit. Here is what I see that we can do.
We can pray: simple prayers for children who died in innocence, for those who bravely died trying to save them, for survivors whose lives have been forever damaged by this violence. Prayers for families shattered, a community hurt, a nation mourning. The words aren’t important. It could be a breath in and a breath out: “Bless them; heal them. Bless them; heal them.”
And give thanks for all those who were spared, those who responded, those who continue to be brave and comforting, skilled and present for this community. As Mr. Rogers’ mother taught him as a child when reading about scary things in the news: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” You can pray for them with a simple breath in and a breath out: “Comfort them; strengthen them. Comfort them; strengthen them.” The loving prayers you send do make a difference as part of the healing of the Holy Spirit.
And hold yourself gently if you begin to feel overwhelmed by facts or feelings about this killing. The media will be bombarding you. Set your own boundary of what you can take in, especially round-the-clock sensational reporting. Find your own balance of compassion and awareness—perhaps through slow, mindful breathing.
Next, we can keep a calm center as heated reactions fly about the causes of this extreme violence. To protect ourselves in the face of death—especially awful, senseless murders—I think we humans often translate our fear and anguish into anger. But we can model our faith by keeping our opinions from escalating into more conflict; by listening respectfully to those who disagree with us about youth culture or mental health treatment or gun policy or any aspect of this story; by allowing this heartbreaking picture to be complicated, rather than black and white.
Because that calm practice will allow our hearts that are broken open to be open to each other. Building up, rather tearing apart, community. I see this as the most positive work we can do through Holy Spirit and fire to redeem this tragedy. If we bravely face the points of brokenness in ourselves, in our families, in our parish—in our own local community—and compassionately try to heal them before they grow into greater pain or sickness, despair or violence, we do God’s work. As my mother taught me in simple language, “Love is paying attention.”
And John the Baptist, always the pathbreaker, points the way: the person with extra coats must give to the cold; the person with extra food must give to the hungry; the person who collects must not be greedy; the person with the most power must be restrained. That means here at St. Patrick’s we build up our acts of stewardship by combining and sharing our resources of all kinds—our time, talent, and treasure. We continue to nurture our local families in ways large and small: giving food to our neighbors who are hungry through Project MANA; teaching little children in Godly Play; knitting warm hats for elementary school kids suffering from the cold; offering a warm place of worship and pastoral care to all who are alone or troubled and seeking answers.
How does our work of Christian stewardship in Nevada redeem a tragedy in Connecticut? When we feed, comfort, listen, and nurture, we turn endings into new beginnings. We help heal this broken world, together, in community. We build and renew the Kingdom of God with hope, in the way of Isaiah, Zephaniah, and John.
AgaIn, in words of our closing hymn, we pray: “Speak, O God, your Word among us./Barren lives your presence fill./Swell our hearts with songs of gladness,/Terrors calm, forebodings still./Let your promised realm of justice/Blossom now throughout the earth;/Your dominion bring now near us;/We await the saving birth.” Amen.
~ Rev. Clare C. Novak
Associate for Interfaith Ministry, St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church
Incline Village, Nevada
December 16, 2012